- In the coming months, Russia will attempt to undermine EU unanimity on Russian sanctions by increasing its diplomatic attention on and activity with relatively Moscow-friendly countries such as Hungary, Greece and Slovakia.
- Meanwhile, countries that are leery of Russia, such as the Baltic states and Poland, will ramp up their efforts to ensure that the European Union maintains a united front on Russian sanctions.
- Russia will likely have more leverage over sanctions in the next few months than it has had in the past two years, but that does not guarantee that sanctions will be lifted.
Since the British electorate voted to leave the European Union, divisions within the bloc have deepened and spread. Northern and Southern European countries disagree more than ever on fiscal issues such as austerity measures, while countries in Central and Eastern Europe have called for power to be restored to their national parliaments. EU members are likewise split over the future of the bloc's sanctions against Russia, which are designed to expire automatically on a specified date unless the bloc votes unanimously to extend or increase them. From the outset, the sanctions — in place since early 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and began to support separatists in eastern Ukraine — have been the subject of heavy debate and scrutiny among EU members. And unlike the U.S. government, which takes a hawkish stance on using its own sanctions to influence the Kremlin, EU members have diverged in their views on how to deal with Russia. Now Moscow hopes to make the most of the growing discord among EU member states, but its efforts will not go unchallenged.
Challenges to Consensus
The threat to EU unanimity on the question of sanctions lies in the rift between members with Moscow-friendly governments and those with governments hostile toward Russia. Countries in the latter group — most notably, Poland and the Baltic states — historically have had poor relations with Moscow. They are also especially wary of Russia's demonstrations of military power, mostly because of their exposure to it: The Baltic states abut Russia's Western Military district, and Poland borders Russia's militarized exclave in Kaliningrad. By contrast, members of the former group, such as Hungary, Slovakia and Greece, are farther removed from Russia's military presence and have strong economic and energy ties to Moscow.
Meanwhile, the member state with the most influence over Russia's sanctions falls into neither camp. Germany, the European Union's de facto leader, has a long and complicated history with Russia. Though the two countries have traditionally kept strong economic and commercial ties, they have also competed for influence on the Continent, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, Germany's government has demonstrated its willingness to engage diplomatically with Russia. At the same time, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has maintained that sanctions must remain in place until Russia has implemented the security components of the Minsk protocols.
Despite their differences, EU members have yet to break their unanimity in voting on sanctions. Leaders of Russia-friendly countries — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for instance, or Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras — have criticized the negative side effects that the sanctions have had on their economies, at times even calling for an end to the measures. Nonetheless, they have voted with Germany time and again (most recently in July) to continue the program. Since these countries' economic and financial ties with Germany and the rest of the European Union dwarf their ties with Russia, staying in Berlin's good graces is more important to them than ending sanctions on Moscow. So far, this has been enough to preserve EU solidarity on the matter.
Cracks in EU Unanimity
However, the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union has cast doubt on the bloc's consensus. The European Union has more pressing concerns than pressuring Russia into implementing the Minsk accords. Other EU countries, including Hungary and Italy, are calling for their own referendums on various issues pertaining to the bloc, such as migrant quotas or spending limits. And since the details and timing of the United Kingdom's exit have not been determined, EU member countries are likely to stay focused on managing the bloc's post-Brexit evolution.
This is a welcome development for Russia. The Brexit vote has created a window of opportunity for Moscow to try to exploit the European Union's divisions over various issues, particularly sanctions. After all, the Kremlin is well aware that it needs only one dissenting country to bring an end to the measures. Slovakia, which currently holds the bloc's rotating presidency, is a prime target in Russia's campaign to undermine EU unanimity ahead of the next sanctions vote, due in early 2017. Already Moscow's efforts have yielded promising results. After an Aug. 25 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico called for a rational re-evaluation of the sanctions regime, taking into account the repercussions that it has had on the European Union. More such meetings between Russian leaders and those of sympathetic countries like Hungary and Greece are likely to occur over the next few months. Beyond diplomacy, Russian intelligence agencies will probably draw on the robust networks they maintain across Europe, employing their contacts in EU member states' leadership and bureaucracies to stoke disagreement and strengthen opposition to sanctions from within the bloc.
A Baltic Counteroffensive
As Russia mounts its offensive, the member countries wariest of Moscow will do their utmost to ensure that sanctions stay in place. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are likely to ramp up their own diplomatic activity, lobbying their fellow EU members to maintain the measures so long as the conflict in eastern Ukraine continues unabated. When Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas met with Merkel on Aug. 24 in Tallinn, he called on the European Union to keep a united front on maintaining sanctions. Lithuania's foreign minister even proposed redoubling the sanctions in response to Russia's inaction on the Minsk agreement.
Although the contingent of EU countries that want to uphold sanctions against Russia has so far prevailed, its continued success is far from guaranteed. Votes on the issue are getting more and more contentious, and the economic effects of the sanctions and Moscow's countersanctions are starting to take a toll on the Continent. Now that the Brexit referendum has thrown the European Union's future into question, Russia will probably have more leverage over the matter in the next few months than it has had in the past two years. The uncertainty in the European Union, therefore, creates a real chance that the bloc will at least ease sanctions next year. Even so, the decision will depend on the evolution not only of the security situation in eastern Ukraine but also of the Continental bloc itself as Brexit negotiations proceed. In the meantime, both sides of the Russian sanctions debate will intensify their political and diplomatic campaigns.
Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky